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Ex−MTA chairman talks tolls, tax in Jackson Heights

Jackson Heights residents got sobering messages of sacrifice and necessity from former MTA Chairman Richard Ravitch, but few assurances that the borough’s specific transit woes would be solved if his plan to institute East River tolls and a payroll tax were implemented.

Speaking at a forum organized by state Sen. Hiram Monserrate (D−East Elmhurst) and state Assemblyman Jose Peralta (D−Jackson Heights), Ravitch said he empathized with people’s reluctance to pay taxes and tolls, but warned the agency’s $800 million operating deficit meant the current funding system is inadequate.

“This is the only city in the United States which is totally dependent on mass transit,” he said, noting 84 percent of people coming to the city’s central business district are straphangers of some kind.

Ravitch’s plan calls for a $5 toll on all East River crossings, a payroll tax on employers and an 8 percent increase in passenger fares. It would eliminate the proposed service cuts in the MTA’s current doomsday budget proposal and reduce the anticipated fare hike of 23 percent.

“Nothing stays the same in this world,” he said, addressing the public’s reluctance to pay tolls on bridges that have been free for decades. “We have enormous public needs in this town.”

Much of the proposed revenue increases would expand bus service throughout the city, Ravitch said, noting that too much infrastructure already exists underground for much expansion of the subway system.

The state Legislature will likely make a decision on the plan next week. Monserrate and Peralta did not see eye−to−eye with the former Metropolitan Transportation Authority executive’s proposal. Monserrate called for tolls on the East River only during rush hour as a compromise.

“There’s no free lunch,” he said.

Peralta suggested a proposal to increase taxes on those making more than $300,000 a year could provide funding that would eliminate the need for the tolls.

The payroll tax also brought criticism from one woman in the audience, who said employers would pass the cost on to employees by reducing salaries or eliminating pay raises.

Democratic District Leader Daniel Dromm asked if tolling the bridges would create traffic jams and increase smog in the Queens neighborhoods along the East River.

“Will it reduce the number of cars? That won’t,” Ravitch said. “But better public transportation will.”

But one longtime Jackson Heights resident, Mark Arbuse, warned that the East River tolls would only further encourage commuters from Long Island to leave their cars in Queens to ride the subway and Long Island Rail Road into Manhattan.

“It’s going to be like that at every station on the line,” he said. “Where are you going to put the cars?”

“That’s a good question,” Ravitch said.

Both elected officials and Ravitch agreed the Legislature should have complete oversight of the MTA, which has faced scandals in the past for keeping two sets of books.

“This is a semi−independent entity which we really don’t have all authority over,” Peralta said. “If we can get to do that, I think we would have a much better MTA.”

Reach reporter Jeremy Walsh by e−mail at jwalsh@timesledger.com or by phone at 718−229−0300, Ext. 154.

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